Silent epic ‘Intolerance’ cleaned up for special edition DVD, Blu-ray

Published: Thursday, Nov. 14 2013 3:13 p.m. MST

When the word “ambitious” is applied to a movie, it generally means something that is bigger and fuller, with a larger, more vast canvas and wider scope than most films strive for.

With modern movies, “ambitious” also tends to refer to an excessive use of CGI (computer graphics imagery) to create that bigness, especially in an outer space or aliens-on-Earth context. And usually with a lot of stuff blowing up.

In fact, many of these films now use so much CGI that they could be Oscar-nominated in the best animated-film category.

So it seems fitting that the Cohen Film Collection, a boutique home-video label, has issued a new edition of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent epic “Intolerance” to remind us that movies once trafficked in realistic replication by using hands-on materials.

Carpenters would build storefronts, construct city streets and sometimes create entire towns, or location scouts would find an existing mansion or a ranch or a farm or an entire village that could be rented for shooting purposes.

This allowed actors to interact with three-dimensional sets instead of a blank green screen whose details would be added later by an artist sitting at a computer.

It wasn’t always all that realistic in the olden days, of course. Before shooting on location became more common, many movies used miniature models and painted backgrounds that looked phony — and with high-definition, big-screen televisions, the fakery is even more noticeable.

But sometimes the results could be quite astonishing. That’s certainly true of the colorful, widescreen, grandiose biblical or sword-and-sandal films of the 1950s and ’60s, but it was also true of the earliest pioneers in that realm.

One of the earliest was Griffith, and “Intolerance” is arguably the most compelling example. And this cleaned up, repackaged version, with a wonderful Carl Davis music score, is the best you’ll find on home video (Cohen, 1916, b/w, two discs, silent with intertitles, new featurette with historian Kevin Brownlow; 16-page booklet with two essays; on Blu-ray, $49.98, and DVD, $39.98).

According to the booklet’s essays, by film historian William M. Drew, author of two books on Griffith and his work, and Richard Porton, an editor at the New York film magazine Cineaste, “Intolerance” is a groundbreaking picture on many levels.

This was Griffith’s follow-up to the controversial “The Birth of a Nation,” and some pundits suggest it was an apology for that film, though Drew and Porton are having none of that.

The four stories of “Intolerance” unfold from different periods of history to explore, as an opening title card explains: “… how hatred and intolerance, though all ages, have battled against love and charity.”

The first image we see is Griffith’s frequent muse Lillian Gish, literally portraying the hand that rocks the cradle, followed by a prologue for each story, which accounts for the first half hour — and Griffith is just warming up.

First comes the “modern” story, circa 1916 (today it plays as a period piece), with a charitable movement inadvertently causing unemployment, which in turn will drive one laid-off worker to turn to crime. Second is the story of the birth, life and crucifixion of Jesus. Third, the 16th century St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. And finally, the fall of Babylon in 6th century B.C.

Each of these four tales focuses on characters who become embroiled in love and hate and troubled times, but despite the vastness of his canvas, Griffith knows how to make their stories intimate, allowing the audience to easily identify with them — even as he cross cuts from one to another throughout the film, building to a climactic crescendo.

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